Christopher Miller is an Investigator at the VA Boston Healthcare System Center for Healthcare Organization and Implementation Research (CHOIR), and an Assistant Professor of Psychology at the Harvard Medical School Department of Psychiatry

 

Abstract

Objectives:

(1) To empirically determine common grant-writing challenges; and (2) to compile the most common and frustrating challenges into a Christmas-themed song

Design:

Rapid qualitative analysis

Setting:

A health services research center in the northeastern United States

Participants:

Eight health services research staff with grant submission experience

Results:

Participants revealed common challenges in writing and submitting grants, including: the need for increased caffeine consumption; the rapid pace at which grant guidelines and requirements change; difficulties accommodating limited budgets; attempting to obtain responses from non-responsive co-investigators (Co-Is); developing and formatting seemingly endless appendices; fitting the grant text into page limits; formatting and finalizing letters of support; meeting obscure font size and line spacing requirements; formatting tables and figures; managing problems related to computer malfunctions or network disconnections; dealing with sleep deprivation; and responding to, or anticipating, reviews written by disgruntled grant reviewers.

Conclusions:

The resulting parody song, entitled The Twelve Days of Grants-mas, may provide some measure of comfort, good cheer, and humor to those research staff unfortunate enough to be writing or submitting grants during or near the holiday season.

 

Background

The process of conceptualizing, writing, and submitting a grant is challenging. In fact, some researchers have concluded that submitting a grant is more demanding and emotionally taxing than actually conducting the proposed research once funded. Difficulties can arise at every stage of this process, including: developing an original, yet practical, idea for a study; assembling a cadre of Co-Investigators who have the expertise and time required to contribute to the application; concisely describing the aims of the proposed research; describing the study within what seem to be ever-constricting page limits; meeting arcane formatting and font requirements; getting timely, intelligible answers from funding agency representatives or program officers; responding (if applicable) to what is often perceived to be inscrutable or contradictory feedback on previous submissions; and achieving all of these things under severe time pressure.

These challenges can prove particularly daunting when grants are due during, or immediately after, major holidays. For example, in the United States (US), several major grant agencies have deadlines in December and January, coinciding (as if by malign design) with the Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas, and New Year’s holidays. To date, however, we are aware of no attempts to catalogue these myriad challenges empirically, nor of any attempts to incorporate them systematically into a holiday-themed song. We therefore set out to achieve two primary aims. First, using rapid analytic methods, we aimed to solicit common challenges faced by research staff in the grant submission process. Second, we aimed to use our findings to develop a modified version of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” that incorporates twelve of the most common, frustrating such challenges.

Methods

Study Setting: We conducted this study in a health services research center in the northeastern US. This research center includes about 25 full- or part-time investigators, along with about 60 analysts, postdoctoral fellows, research assistants, and administrative support staff. The study was conducted in January of 2019.

Participants: All staff working in the research center were invited to submit, by email, a list of up to twelve things that they have found challenging or frustrating about the grant submission process for possible inclusion in The Twelve Days of Grants-mas. Potential participants were provided with informed consent, in that the email solicitation explicitly indicated that responses would be aggregated for the purposes of a manuscript submission.

Analytic Approach: The lead author compiled all responses into a list and identified ways that similar responses could be grouped together for analytic purposes to allow for the emergence of themes.

The lead author then selected twelve responses for inclusion in the final Twelve Days of Grants-mas based on several factors, including the number of participants who endorsed the challenge; its perceived severity; and the lead author’s ability to describe it succinctly enough to fit within the melody of the song itself. A preliminary version of the resulting Twelve Days of Grants-mas was then distributed to each of the participants, who provided feedback, resulting in the final version of the song.

Results

Eight people out of 85 potential participants (9%) responded with between two and twelve responses each. In total they provided 31 unique responses.

The finalized list of challenges or frustrations identified by the participants included the need for increased caffeine consumption; the rapid pace at which grant guidelines and requirements change; difficulties keeping the proposal within budget limitations; attempting to get responses from non-responsive co-investigators; developing and formatting seemingly endless appendices; fitting the grant text into page limits; formatting and finalizing letters of support; meeting obscure font size and line spacing requirements; formatting tables and figures; problems related to computer malfunctions or network disconnections; sleep deprivation; and responding to, or anticipating, reviews written by disgruntled grant reviewers. The final version of The Twelve Days of Grants-mas incorporating these elements is presented as Figure 1, below.

One limitation of this work is a relatively low response rate of 9%. We posit that this low response rate is likely attributable to the majority of potential participants recovering from a grueling grant-writing season and not being in any shape to generate another original thought.

Conclusions

The process of writing and submitting a grant can be physically and emotionally exhausting. It is our hope that The Twelve Days of Grants-mas can serve not only as an empirically-derived compendium of common grant-writing challenges, but also as a source of good cheer and humor for those researchers unfortunate enough to be engaged in the grant-writing process during or near the holiday season.

 

Figure 1: The Twelve Days of Grants-mas 

The first thing at Grants-mas
that’s frustrating to me…
is having too much caffeine!

The second thing at Grants-mas
that’s frustrating to me…
is changing guidelines,
and having too much caffeine!

The third thing at Grants-mas
that’s frustrating to me…
is shrinking the budget,
changing guidelines,
and having too much caffeine.

The fourth thing at Grants-mas
that’s frustrating to me…
is non-responsive Co-I’s,
shrinking the budget,
changing guidelines,
and having too much caffeine.

The fifth thing at Grants-mas
that’s frustrating to me…
five appendices!
non-responsive Co-I’s,
shrinking budget,
changing guidelines,
and having too much caffeine.

The sixth thing at Grants-mas
that’s frustrating to me…
is page limitations
five appendices!
non-responsive Co-I’s,
shrinking budget,
changing guidelines,
and having too much caffeine.

The seventh thing at Grants-mas
that’s frustrating to me…
is letters of support,
page limitations
five appendices!
non-responsive Co-I’s,
shrinking budget,
changing guidelines,
and having too much caffeine.

The eighth thing at Grants-mas
that’s frustrating to me…
is font size requirements,
letters of support,
page limitations
five appendices!
non-responsive Co-I’s,
shrinking budget,
changing guidelines,
and having too much caffeine.

The ninth thing at Grants-mas
that’s frustrating to me…
is formatting figures,
font size restrictions,
letters of support,
page limitations
five appendices!
non-responsive Co-I’s,
shrinking budget,
changing guidelines,
and having too much caffeine.

The tenth thing at Grants-mas
that’s frustrating to me…
is network disconnections,
formatting figures,
font size restrictions,
letters of support,
page limitations
five appendices!
non-responsive Co-I’s,
shrinking budget,
changing guidelines,
and having too much caffeine.

The eleventh thing at Grants-mas
that’s frustrating to me…
is sleep deprivation,
network disconnections,
formatting figures,
font size restrictions,
letters of support,
page limitations
five appendices!
non-responsive Co-I’s,
shrinking budget,
changing guidelines,
and having too much caffeine.

The twelfth thing at Grants-mas
that’s frustrating to me…
is grumpy reviewers,
sleep deprivation,
network disconnections,
formatting figures,
font size restrictions,
letters of support,
page limitations
five appendices!
non-responsive Co-I’s,
shrinking budget,
changing guidelines,
and having too much caffeine!